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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Seeing But Not Seeing

This morning I was reading a familiar story from John chapter 9. Jesus gave sight to a man who had been born blind. The reaction of his neighbors is predictable: "This man looks just like our friend the blind man! Wait, is this the blind man? No, it can't be!" The blind man was like, "Yep, I'm him!" Then he told them that Jesus had healed him, which is probably what got him into trouble. Don't ever forget: your witness for Jesus may get you into hot water from time to time. That's no reason not to do it!

Anyway, his "friends" took him to the Pharisees, a group of very influential religious leaders of the day, and the Pharisees questioned him. According to their rules (not God's rules!), Jesus was breaking religious law by essentially practicing medicine on the Sabbath. (Basically, if you've ever heard a Christian berating another Christian for having a job that has them working on a Sunday, that's the same idea.) It was clear to everyone around that someone could not perform this miracle of healing unless God sent him, but this flew in the face of the Pharisees' belief system. Instead of looking at the plain fact that Jesus' actions proved that He was from God and that their belief system was flawed, they chose to try to preserve their belief system by refusing to believe that the event had even taken place. They brought in the man's parents and asked them if this was the blind guy - they were afraid of being excommunicated, so they confirmed the facts of the situation (yes, he's our son, yes, he was blind when he was born) without ever saying whether they believed Jesus was from God. They just threw their poor son under the bus: "He's a grown-up, ask him what happened!"

They brought the man back in and questioned him again about Jesus. The man stuck to his guns - "I don't know if your rules are true, but I know I can see!" Then they asked him to tell them again how Jesus had done it, and the guy finally lost his patience. Basically, he said "I told you my story already. Why are you so interested in Jesus anyway?" Then he tossed some waterproof theology their way, and in return they threw him out of the church (the thing his parents were afraid was going to happen to them).

Now, the Pharisees knew Jesus had come from God. In John 3:1-2 one of them actually came to Jesus and told him as much. These guys weren't looking for knowledge or truth... they were looking for a way to force the truth to fit their flawed belief system.

As I was reading this, I was reminded of the controversy several years ago about "gender" - political and even scientific leadership were (and are) arguing that gender is somehow a mental or emotional state, or equivalent to the sexual activities in which one chooses to engage. When I was growing up, it was obvious to everyone that "gender" referred to the plumbing in one's body, not the state of one's mind. There were and are clearly two distinct configurations. Now, there have always been people who have the same configuration of body parts who were attracted to one another - I don't think anyone denies that fact. Many people of faith believe, based on things they read in the Bible, that sexual activity between persons with the same plumbing is contrary to Scripture, and thus sinful. But even people who thinks it is sinful do not deny that the attraction sometimes exists or that the activity happens.

The new thing in the past five years or so is that people with various sexual orientations (and well-meaning people who want them to feel included in society) are choosing to redefine the word "gender" and the noun "sex" to mean a whole host of things related to emotional states and sexual desires, leaving no word in the English language that means "I have a this and you have a that, so our bodies are different." It seems to me that this amounts to the same thing as "You can see and that would mean that Jesus is from God, but he can't be from God because he broke our rule." It seems like this attack on the English language is there to support preconceived ideas about sexuality and make it impossible to argue that certain behaviors are inherently wrong. Those that argue against it are "thrown out of the temple" by being censored or removed from social media, ridiculed by broadcast and published media, and basically shamed for their beliefs.

Now, you might argue that the people who think gender=body configuration at birth are the equivalent of the old-school Pharisees, wanting to keep things the same while a new progressive person challenges their belief system. I would argue that Jesus and His truth predated the Pharisees, who were seeking to add their own rules to God's reality - and the fact that the word "gender" historically referred to the physical state of one's body predates the idea that "gender" is how you feel at any given moment. The Pharisees were the ones trying to twist reality for their own gain; Jesus was just expressing the truth that had always been.

I don't deny anyone's right to engage in any kind of sexual activity that they want to, barring of course things that would bring harm to another. I don't even deny the right of a man to dress like a woman or a woman to dress like a man if they want to. As Americans, we believe people can do and say what they please, within the bounds of the law. But I do think it's not right to force people to change their very language to fit an ideological agenda in which they do not believe.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We human beings are so prone to trying to justify our actions in any way possible, particularly if we are told that they are sinful - instead of humbly coming to God and saying, "We know Jesus is from You, so we're asking for Your truth in this situation. We're not trying to manipulate facts to suit an agenda. We are seeking to manipulate our agenda to conform to Your truth."

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Leave and Forsake

This post is something I wrote years ago on the topic of God never "leaving" us or "forsaking" us. When I learned this, it changed the way I think of God's attitude toward me. Enjoy!

There are a number of places in Scripture where God tells someone, seemingly redundantly, that He will not “leave” them or “forsake” them. For example:
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,
    “The Lord is my helper;
        I will not fear;
    what can man do to me?” -Hebrews 13:5-6
That verse quotes from two passages in the Old Testament. The first quote (the one we are concerned with at the moment) is from Deuteronomy 31:6:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
Here is a breakdown from Strong's Concordance of what those words mean:

Greek: to send back, relax, loosen; to give up, omit, calm; to leave, not to uphold, to let sink [often translated to mean an act of releasing something]
Hebrew: to sink, relax, sink down, let drop, be disheartened; to sink down; to sink, drop; to sink, relax, abate; to relax, withdraw; to let drop, abandon, relax, refrain, forsake; to let go; to refrain, let alone; to be quiet; to show oneself slack [contexts imply relinquishing control]

Greek: abandon, desert; leave in straits, leave helpless; totally abandoned, utterly forsaken; to leave behind among, to leave surviving [most contexts imply abandonment]
Hebrew: to leave, loose, forsake; to leave; to depart from, leave behind, leave, let alone; to leave, abandon, forsake, neglect, apostatise; to let loose, set free, let go, free [to walk away from something]

To “leave” something means to accidentally relax your grip, to forget to take it with you when you go. To “forsake” means to intentionally abandon something, to turn your back on it and walk away on purpose. God has promised to do NEITHER to His people!

Do you think there is a time when God does chose to leave or forsake someone? Do you have a testimony of a time when God showed you He was there right when you needed Him? Sound off below by clicking the "comment" link and join the discussion!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Police and Fire

Every morning (and by "every morning" I mean "every morning that I don't accidentally oversleep"!) I get up early to listen to the Word, pray, read, and basically prepare myself for the day. This is something I've been doing for two years or so, and I highly recommend it. I pray for my family, for our leaders in government, and I pray for myself that I will follow God's leading. One topic that almost always comes to my heart in those times is our local fire and police departments. These are people who have dedicated their lives to protecting others, and from my point of view, since they are protectors of the people of God, they have a mantle of ministry on them, whether they have put their trust in Jesus or not. That's certainly not to say that they shouldn't serve people who aren't Christians... of course they should and do! But I believe that because that mantle of service includes God's people, first responders are entitled to God's protection, and even God's anointing to do their jobs.

I was thinking about how police officers confront dangerous situations all the time – there will always be crazy people doing crazy things. But I believe that the mere existence of a police force discourages a lot of stuff that would happen if there were no consequences. Every time a police officer has to face down someone who is trying to shoot people, there are a dozen more people who would try to shoot someone if they weren't afraid of being captured and punished by the police. Even in days when all they are doing is sitting on the side of the road waiting to catch someone speeding, by their very existence they are protecting you and me. 

First responders wake up every morning with the potential of having to do or see something that could haunt them for the rest of their lives. They know this, and yet they get out of bed anyway. There's a nonzero chance that today, a police officer or fireman in my town may not come home because of something that happened to them as part of their duties. Still, they get out of bed, suit up, and head out into whatever awaits them. So my prayer for them every morning is that their lives and their minds will be protected by God. I pray that their training and best practices are at the forefront and followed perfectly, because those things are in place because they have been found to de-escalate situations effectively. I pray that they will have wisdom when it is time to make a decision, and that they will make the right choice quickly. I thank God for the mantle of protection He places on them as the protectors of the people of God.

Pray for your local police and firemen. They don't have to do what they do. They could work in an office, or open an auto repair shop, or start a business, or teach school, or any other job, but they have chosen to protect you. That's a God thing. They're in your corner and my corner, and you and I should be in their corner too.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

A Life of Jesus

Several months ago I ran across an article about a new movie project by Martin Scorcese. Initially I had heard the (false) rumor that he was going to do a gender-flipped movie about Jesus (with women playing the parts of Jesus and His disciples), so I looked it up to find out if that was true. After all, the last time M.S. made a film about Jesus, it was "controversial" to say the least! But it turns out the rumor was partly true - Scorcese apparently is ready to start shooting a movie based on the book A Life of Jesus which was written in the early 1970's by a Japanese author named Shūsaku Endō (no, I don't know how to pronounce it!) I immediately looked it up in my local library's catalog, and discovered that they do not own a copy, but I could get one via interlibrary loan. I made the request, and after a shorter-than-you-might-expect wait, I had the book in my hands!

The book was originally written in Japanese, for a Japanese audience. Shūsaku Endō was a rare Japanese Catholic, and he was writing the book for his countrymen. The situation, as I have read about it, is that the Japanese are more of a matriarchal society than the historically patriarchal West, and the Japanese (again according to what I read, I do not have personal experience) don't particularly take well to the miraculous. Reportedly, Endō deliberately focused on the more motherly aspects of Jesus' ministry, and I did find that to be the case. But even we Westerners who are used to the "Father and Son" paradigm can get some nice takeaways from this book.

A Life of Jesus is not a narrative retelling of the Gospels like Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice (I wrote about that book here). This book is more like sitting around with a novelist (which Endō was) who has done a lot of research about Jesus, listening to him tell you about his research. And the author clearly did his homework. He had traveled to and was familiar with the Holy Land, and he had read tons of scholarship and writings by Theologians about the life of Christ. And I agree with the starting point for his journey: there are "facts" and there is "truth", and the writers of the Bible were basically more interested in the "truth" than in detailed "facts". That's why if you read the four Gospels and pay close attention, you'll find that events sometimes are related in a different order, and different details are given about the same event. For many years I've been of the opinion that it is too much coincidence to believe that every time in the Bible that there is a crowd or an army or a city, the number of people is always a round number (as in, Jesus fed exactly 5,000 people, not 5,025 or 4,904). In today's culture, we are obsessed with finding out exact facts. The writers of the Gospels (and, indeed, the entire Bible) were much more interested in showing us who God is than, say, what Moses ate for breakfast, or what color the apostle Peter's eyes were. I think that is partly cultural, too... I don't know that middle-Eastern people living in the desert 2,000 years ago were that interested in precision. They had a story to tell, and as long as they hit the main points, that was okay.

So from that starting point and with the mind of a novelist, Endō begins to read the lines, and then read between them. And he has some pretty interesting things to say, too. For example – there was a group in the setting where the Gospels take place called the Essenes. We know about them through history, but they are not mentioned directly in the Bible. These are the group that allegedly compiled what we now call the Dead Sea Scrolls. Endō draws some interesting and startling conclusions about them. First, he theorizes that they were a political threat to Rome, and that is why the Gospels skirt around their existence – to lessen the chances that the Gospels would be seen as subversive literature and destroyed (this seems plausible to me). Second, he theorizes that John the Baptist was either their leader or someone in high leadership (okay, I can follow Endō to this conclusion). But then, oddly, he jumps to the conclusion that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, and basically took over John's role when John was executed.

And that's the way a lot of this book went for me. I kept feeling like Endō was making some interesting points, but then going one or two steps too far. I think Jesus had a lot of respect for John, but I don't think Jesus was a disciple of John and I don't think that Jesus was just the best runner-up that people could find to follow once John was gone. I think Jesus superseded John in every way possible, because Jesus is God and John the Baptist is not. 

Another characteristic of this book is that it rarely mentions the miracles of Jesus, choosing to focus on His teachings and on what the author imagines his personality must have been like (remember, this was written by a novelist!) There is of course precedent to this – Thomas Jefferson actually constructed his own copy of the Gospel accounts by physically (with a razor blade) cutting out anything miraculous or spiritual, leaving only Jesus' teachings (at least Endō does not leave out the Resurrection, as Jefferson did!) Endō tells us that the Gospels were based on older documents containing lists of things Jesus said (probably more or less true), and that the miraculous parts were mostly added in later by the Early Church to spice things up (have I mentioned that sometimes he goes a step too far for me?) Except for the Resurrection, he essentially tries to explain away Jesus' miracles and healings. One idea that I found interesting, even though I don't believe it is the truth, is that the signs of demon possession in the Gospels could be explained away as rantings of someone hallucinating with a case of malaria. He doesn't say, but implies, that casting out demons was really just sitting with people until their fever broke. He says outright that the story of Lazarus' resurrection is symbolic and not factual.

He also basically says that any fulfillment of prophecy that you see in the Gospels (such as Zechariah 9:9 which is fulfilled in Matthew 21) were added later by the Early Church. They knew the prophecies, he argues, and made up stuff to match them. I think there are two things that are more likely than that. One of the things is that the prophecies were of something that was going to happen in the future, and it happened, because that's what a prophecy is. The other possibility in my mind is that Jesus knew the prophecies, and when the time was right, He did what God had lined out for Him to do and deliberately fulfilled the prophecies out of obedience to His Father. I believe the truth has a little of each of those things in it. What I don't think is that the Early Church deliberately manipulated the accounts of Jesus' life in order to make them more exciting. I tend to think Jesus' life was already plenty enough exciting!

But Endō doesn't seem to think so. He paints a pretty plaintive picture for us of a moody, saddened Jesus who walked around thinking about how nobody really understood Him. He goes so far as to say that when Jesus sent out His disciples to minister, it was because Jesus Himself was going into hiding because the crowds were mean to him. I tend to think Jesus was much more concerned with the actual needs of the people than with what people thought of Him.

The author also asserts that Jesus never actually said He was the Messiah. I think the Bible text directly contradicts that idea, and I don't think that the Early Church added that in. He also rejects the idea (from the Gospel accounts) that there was an actual period of darkness and Jesus' death, at which time the earth shook and the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom. I'm not sure why you would believe that Jesus rose from the dead but also reject outright that lesser miracles might have happened when He descended into death, but the author does.

I wish I felt like I had the liberty to assume that entire hunks of the Bible were added later, like fan fiction, but the problem is that I'm convinced that the Bible says what it says for a reason. I don't think there are things in there that are factually untrue. The details are sometimes different, as they will be when two people tell the same story and don't collaborate beforehand, but I tend to think that except for minor details (like that five thousand and first person Jesus probably fed) the things recounted in the Gospels actually happened that way. Ironically, Endō once or twice adds in details from the extra-Biblical Catholic tradition, such as the "falls" of Jesus on the way to the Cross. There's your fan fiction.

He paints a strange picture of Jesus' perception of God. Despite the Gospel reports of Jesus repeatedly using the term "Father" in prayer, Endō tells us this: "He believed that God by his nature was not in the image of a stern father, but was more like a mother who shares the suffering of her children and weeps with them..." Now, understanding that Endō was writing for a specific audience, and that he did not say that God is not a father but that God is not a stern father, I still think this misses the mark a little bit. I think that Jesus experienced and empathized with human suffering, but that was because Jesus actually became a human being. God the Father loves us, and maybe even weeps with use when we are in pain, but He does not suffer, and I don't think Jesus thought He did. The Gospel writers did not presume to put unspoken thoughts in Jesus' head, but 2k years later, Shūsaku Endō somehow thought he could. I'll say it again, though - Endō was a novelist, so his natural mindset tended to work in character development and coherent plot in places where they are absent from the Gospel narratives.

I do think his characterization of Judas Iscariot is interesting. Endō essentially saw all of the disciples as looking for a political victory over Rome, and that's probably not far from the truth on one level; I think they sensed something spiritual happening too, but from their perspective, Messiah was to be their savior from Rome. Judas, on the other hand, is characterized as maybe the smartest in the bunch, seeing potential for political victory but also realizing way ahead of the others that Jesus wasn't going to be a military leader, and that the story of his objection to the woman pouring perfume on Jesus' feet amounts to him implicitly admitting this. The Gospel accounts paint Judas with a broad, vengeful brush, but I almost agree with Endō that they are harsh on Judas a bit unjustly. After all, all of the disciples cut and ran away when the chips were down. I imagine that if nobody had given Jesus up, Jesus would have found a way to surrender himself anyway. Judas did nothing to Jesus that God hadn't planned for ahead of time.

I wouldn't read this book as a devotional handbook. In my opinion, its flaws are too extensive for that. If you are not secure in your understanding of the Scriptures, this book could really introduce some unnecessary confusion and uncertainty. Endō asserts that nothing but a true resurrection of Jesus from the dead could have turned the weak-willed disciples of Jesus into the strong leaders who spread His message all over the world and, tradition tells us, most of whom eventually faced martyr's deaths themselves. But if you are willing to accept the most unlikely miracle of them all, a man coming back to life after being killed, why would you discard other lesser miracles such as healing the sick or casting out demons? And why, with the ultimate miracle in their toolbelt, would any early writer presume to fabricate other lesser miracles? I think this book holds some interesting stuff for someone who isn't easily swayed in their convictions, but in the long run, there are probably better books if you're looking for truths from the Word. For example, start with the Word itself - get comfortable with what it says! Then if you read something like this book, you won't be toppled over by "steps too far" like the ones I see in this book!

Happy Easter!

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Forgive and Forget

A friend of mine posts funny memes on Facebook almost every day. I don't know how he finds them all, but he rarely posts one that doesn't actually make me smile. Some time ago he posted one that contained some "rules for life" that are tongue-in-cheek and pretty funny to me. The first one, however, I thought contained a grain of truth. It said, using a word I won't use here because I don't want to offend anyone, that you should always forgive "your enemy", but then you should also remember the guy's name. The reason that I thought it contained some truth is that I don't believe in "forgive and forget" – at least not all of the time.

Don't get me wrong, I 100% believe in the "forgive" part! Jesus made it very clear that we should forgive people who wrong us, over and over if necessary. I'd say there are two reasons for that: first and foremost, the person who wronged us can see God's forgiveness modeled in us. Second, when we hold unforgiveness in our hearts, it is damaging to us, too. I've heard it said, and I think this is a fantastic analogy, that harboring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping that the other guy will die! Unforgiveness is toxic; forgiveness is mandatory.

But I would submit that forgiving and forgetting can be like eating healthy and hoping the other guy loses weight! Your forgiveness does not change that person, outside of giving them an opportunity to make a change themselves when they see God's work in you causing you to forgive. But if they don't change, there is every chance they will wrong and hurt you again.

But isn't that what forgiveness is... letting go of past hurts and being open to the person? Trusting them again like you did before? Well, let me frame it this way. Let's say you know someone who has a hot temper and a loaded pistol. Let's say that person aimed their gun at you and shot you. You were badly wounded, went to the hospital, got patched up, and forgave that person for what he did to you. All good so far? You did the right thing!

Months later you run into that person. He has his firearm. He pulls it out and aims it at you. It is loaded. Do you stand there and get shot again? Is that what forgiveness means? This person did not change. The first shooting was not an accident, and the impending second shooting will not be an accident either. What is the purpose of you going to the hospital again? To show the person how holy you are? Well, maybe. Maybe God says to you in your heart, be still. I'm taking care of you, and you need to stand up and be brave, and I'll get the glory in this situation. But to my way of thinking, if that doesn't happen and you just stand there and get shot again, you're kind of stupid. You're probably more useful to God alive than potentially dead, and this guy may have been spending the past few months at the shooting range, making sure he won't have to waste a third bullet on you!

My friend disagrees, and I'm sure he's not the only one. He believes that if you are wronged and you forgive, you should be totally open to being hurt again the same way. Maybe sometimes that is the case. And since I'm not God and I've been wrong before, I'll just say right here and now that my opinion is my opinion only where this is concerned. But Jesus didn't always let people get away with harming Him. Jesus literally came into the world with the express intention of allowing Himself to be brutally murdered one day, but years before that time, an angry crowd (in his own home town of Nazareth!) was trying to throw him off a cliff. It would have been the perfect time to die at the hands of enemies, if that's your intention. Did Jesus let them kill Him? Nope... the Bible says he just walked on through the crowd and left. (You can read it yourself in Luke 4:28-30.)

Did Jesus forgive them? Of course He did! In fact, he even came back to Nazareth later and tried to minister to the people again - it's recorded in Mark 6:1-6. The people basically didn't believe in Him this time either (he healed a few sick, so clearly someone believed), but at least they didn't try to throw him off a cliff this time.

So, two lessons from this. (1) Jesus defended His own life – not with force, essentially with pacifism, but He didn't let them harm Him. (2) This gave Him an opportunity to minister again to the same people later, and some who wouldn't have had a chance to be healed, got healed. (3) Clearly Jesus wasn't afraid to put Himself in harm's way again, going back to a place where he had already been rejected and almost executed!

In my opinion, sometimes there are situations where you forgive, but then you don't get in the same situation again. Domestic violence is often a good example. A woman who is being abused and stays with her attacker often just fuels his behavior, and the abuse gets worse and worse. That woman can forgive him every single night and continue to get injured, until one day she forgives him for the last time in Heaven. Or, she can get out of the dangerous situation, preserve her own health and life, and maybe even try to get him some help. Maybe losing her is what he needs to wake up to the fact that he is ruining his own life by being out of control. I've seen marriages that survive terrible situations, and certainly God is powerful enough to heal a broken marriage. And maybe, just maybe, the solution for a woman in that situation is to stay. But I'd say the default should be to get out and not get killed.

What about someone who is wronged in business? Let's say you go into business with someone. You work through the hard years of getting it off the ground, and eventually you start turning a profit. Everything is looking good for five or six years... and then your business partner drains the accounts and leaves the country, and you have to close up shop. You're ruined. You have to fire people who depended on you. Maybe you even lose your own house. You know you have to forgive that person; it's excruciatingly hard, but you do it.

A few years down the line, your former business partner, who has returned to the country after spending all of the money he stole from the business, comes to you with an idea for a new business. We built one before, he tells you – we can build one again! You know you can't trust this person. Does your forgiveness compel you to go into business with that person again? I would say not.

God may well tell you to "let him have your cloak as well" if they take advantage of you. Or, He may counsel you not to "be unequally yoked with unbelievers". But neither of those actions means that you have or have not forgiven that person. The forgiveness happens in your heart; once you have forgiven, you are then free to make the Godly choice of what action to take next.

Friday, March 15, 2024

ALL His Benefits

One last time, for the people who came in late! This is the list of benefits God has for His children, as listed in Psalm 103:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity - read the post about it
  2. healing for diseases - read the post about it
  3. redemption from "the pit" - read the post about it
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy" - read the post about it
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health - read the post about it

Can I attempt a paraphrase of the list of benefits, based on what I've blogged about them? Here we go:

  • God knows we struggle with our sin natures, and He pardons us when our motives are wrong.
  • God provides healing for us when our bodies aren't working right.
  • God knows that we were imprisoned and headed for ultimate destruction, and paid the price for our release.
  • God's love is so deep, devoted, and unchanging that it completely surrounds us.
  • God supplies us with things that are good for us, bring joy to our lives, and help us be strong as we make our way through life.

Picture in your mind a man or woman who is imprisoned and in chains. They are 100% guilty of what they have been accused of. They have been beaten and wounded during their crime and later as punishment for it, and they look decades older than they are because of what they have experienced. Now imagine that they are brought before a judge, That judge is God. God picks up his gavel, bangs it on the desk, and says, "I hereby pardon this person." Then God comes down to the person, touches them with His hands, and their wounds immediately disappear. He turns to the bailiff, and says, "Release them - I have paid back everything owed." The bailiff takes off their handcuffs, and instead God wraps the former prisoner in a luxurious robe of His love which they need never take off. Next He gives them a refreshing drink of the best water that has ever existed. When the person drinks the water, they visibly become more alert, their breathing is more calm, and they look back at God with eyes filled with peace.

That's you. That's the benefits God has provided. Don't let them pass you by!


Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Benefits (Benefit #5)

 Here's that list of benefits from Psalm 103 again:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity
  2. healing for diseases
  3. redemption from "the pit"
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy"
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health

God satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's

There is an inspiring story about eagles, that they fly to the top of a mountain and break off their beaks and lose all their feathers and grow new ones. I'm no ornithologist so I don't know if that's true or not, but I don't think this means that your body is going to regenerate somehow and you'll suddenly look 20 when you're 60. I think the imagery in the Bible of an eagle is an image of strength. Look at what it says in Isaiah 40, for example:
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
     and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
     they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
     they shall walk and not faint.

I think that the image of the eagle in the Bible represents strength and stamina. It is true that sometimes we have to go through a painful process to get to where God wants us to be, but in my opinion, that's not what this is about.

So what is the process that this verse is talking about? It says that our youthful strength and stamina is renewed because God satisfies us with "good". Good what? Well, the word just means good and pleasing. What if God wants to satisfy us with things that make us happy? And I'm not talking about expensive cars and yachts and huge televisions and that sort of thing... even people who don't believe in God know that wealth alone doesn't make you happy. I think that in general God wants us to be supplied and comfortable in our lives – I think He wants our lives to be full of joy. I mean, if God wanted us to suffer, he could send us all right to Hell right this minute. The Gospels don't show us a Jesus who came and injured people and caused damage... Jesus came and healed people, supplied for their needs, even sometimes fed them. I think God wants to bring things, people, and circumstances into our lives that we can rejoice in, that put a spring in our step, that make us feel like we could spread our wings and fly up into the sky!

Counter point: Sometimes Believers suffer.

Yes they do.

In fact, the next verse, immediately after the benefits, acknowledges that: "The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed." (Psalm 103:6) Some people, it says, are oppressed. BUT: God is working in their behalf, bringing justice, bringing that "good" promised in the benefits! The Bible isn't some kind of utopian nonsense. It fully admits that difficulties exist. God's benefits are not a denial of reality – they are hope that it will get better!

On to the final wrap-up, or start from the beginning!

Friday, March 1, 2024

Benefits (Benefit #4)

Here's that list of benefits from Psalm 103 again:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity
  2. healing for diseases
  3. redemption from "the pit"
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy"
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health

God crowns you with steadfast love and mercy

Crowns are round, and that's why translations use the word "crowns" here. But it doesn't seem to me to be about a royal crown. The Hebrew word means "to encircle" – it seems to me that this is more of a protective measure than the coronation we might think of. In Psalm 5:12 it says "For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover him with favor as with a shield." That word "cover" is the same word translated "crown" here, in Psalm 103:4.

"Steadfast love" means loyalty, devotion, and the unchangeable nature of God. In Deuteronomy 31:8 (and also a few verses before in 31:6) Moses said this about the nature of God: "It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed." In the passage in Hebrews 13 that quotes Moses, the author wraps it up this way: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8) God loves you, and He isn't going to change His mind!

And finally, "mercies" means a deep well of loving compassion. In verses 13-14 of this same chapter, the Psalmist expands on this a little bit more: "As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust." God isn't looking for a reason to condemn us. He knows that we are fragile creatures, able to be wiped out by nothing more than a change of temperature or an invisible gas that we breathe. When one of my children is in pain or fearful or in some kind of danger, I am immediately there for them, in their corner, because I know them and I know when they have a need. That's the way God is for us.

All of that meaning packed into seven words! God protectively encircles us with His devotion, His loyalty, His never-leave-you, His love, His mercy, His compassion. It's like being in the safest place you've ever been, with the kindest, strongest, and most protective person you've ever met. It's that, but more. Wow!

On to Benefit #5, or start from the beginning!

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Benefits (Benefit #3)

Here's that list of benefits from Psalm 103 again:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity
  2. healing for diseases
  3. redemption from "the pit"
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy"
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health

God redeems your life from the pit

Redemption is a word with a very small meaning outside of Theological circles these days. You can "redeem" a coupon for thirty cents off a can of peas. You can "redeem" the box tops off your cereal boxes to satisfy whatever promotion the cereal company is running. When I was a kid you could "redeem" glass soda pop bottles and get a few cents back. Or, if you say or do something stupid, you can do something better and so you "redeem yourself" in the eyes of whoever saw you do the stupid thing.

None of these things are exactly the Bible meaning of the word "redeem". In the Bible, to "redeem" someone (because in this verse God is redeeming us!) means to pay the price to get them out of a captive situation. Paying a ransom, Almost like "posting bail" for a prisoner to secure their release from prison, except that once redeemed you don't have to go back to prison. It's more akin to paying off your mortgage, and then you are free from that payment forever! In Bible terms, "redeemed" is a permanent state!

So what is "the pit"? Well, literally... it's, you know, a pit. A hole in the ground. Maybe extend that to something like a dungeon. But this is a very specific "pit" – this pit is the place where people go when they die. It's parallel language to Psalm 49:15 that talks about redemption from "Sheol" which is a Hebrew word for "the underworld". But this doesn't really signify Heaven or Hell as the Christian faith understands them; this is a much more primitive imagery. Many translations render this word as "destruction" which is probably an accurate portrayal of what the Psalmist meant.

Let's put those things together... there are things in the world that want to kill you and me. Even outside of whatever hostile spiritual forces there may be, there are creatures who, if they saw you, would absolutely try to kill you. Then there are things that could accidentally kill you... a car swerves into your lane, something falls on you out of a window, you catch a terminal disease. These things want to destroy you, and the danger exists because sin has been brought into this world. There is a price to pay for sin; that price is destruction. But God constantly pays the ransom cost that it takes to redeem us from the destruction that results from our sin! Your life doesn't have to lead to a place of oblivion. God redeems you!

On to Benefit #4, or start from the beginning!

Friday, February 23, 2024

Benefits (Benefit #2)

Here's that list of benefits from Psalm 103 again:

  1. forgiveness for iniquity
  2. healing for diseases
  3. redemption from "the pit"
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy"
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health

God heals all your diseases

Benefit #2 is "who heals all your diseases". I grew up in churches that believe that God can supernaturally heal someone by laying on of hands, prayer, maybe anointing with oil - there are a number of Scriptural mechanisms by which humans express their faith that God will heal someone. But I know that there are a lot of churches that believe instead that God does NOT supernaturally heal people anymore. Those things the Apostles did in the Bible? Those things, members of these church bodies might say, left the world when those Apostles died. I am not here to criticize those people; I'm just acknowledging that the things I was taught in church are not the same things everyone is taught.

But the benefit laid out here is pretty straightforward. I looked up the Hebrew words, and there's not really any ambiguity. "heals" means healing - sometimes it is even translated as "physician". This "diseases" is not common in the Old Testament, but every time it occurs it's talking about a disease in someone's body, usually one that kills them (don't look it up if you are squeamish!) And how about that word in the middle: "all". So God is the physician, you have some kind of illness or illnesses in your body, maybe even terminal ones, and the benefit is that the physician God will heal ALL of your sicknesses!

So here's the big question: Michael, as you were growing up in your church and people were laying hands and praying and anointing with oil people with sicknesses, are ALL of them healed? And my answer has to be: some of them walked away from the prayer time and didn't seem changed at all. Others walked away super excited because they could tell that they were healed! I don't actually know why that is - I have some theories and ideas, and I've heard preachers talk about it. But the benefit is that God heals ALL of your diseases. That's what the Bible says, so I have to believe that it is available!

There is a warning in verse 2 of this chapter: "forget not all his benefits". In my previous blog entry I described how at the end of the year in a lot of businesses, you sign up for benefits. The ones you are offered and refuse, you can't turn around three months later and access - if you didn't sign up at the right time, you don't get them. Also, if you forget you have a benefit - say, you go to the pharmacy but don't give them your insurance card - the benefit does not work for you. You get to pay the price for forgetting that benefit. I suspect this is something like that. You have to know that healing is available and trust God to supply it. I'm by no means an expert on this, and there are instances when things happen and you wonder why someone stayed sick when to all appearances they were believing God for His healing. All I do know is that the benefit is there, and if I get sick, I want to do everything I can to access it!

On to Benefit #3, or start from the beginning!

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Benefits (Benefit #1)

I've got a printed out copy of Psalm 103 that I recently posted on the white board next to where I work. The reason is because it talks about "benefits". A month or two ago, if you work for a company like I work for, you probably got to hear the "benefits" talk. This is the talk about how to sign up for insurance, 401(k), whatever stuff your employer makes available to you. In order to take advantage of that stuff, typically you have to take steps to sign up. Psalm 103:2 says "..forget not all his [God's!] benefits." I was like, wait, God has benefits? This I need to look at! Seems like I might want to sign up!

Here's God's list of benefits from that chapter (no 401(k) plan here, sorry!)

  1. forgiveness for iniquity
  2. healing for diseases
  3. redemption from "the pit"
  4. being crowned with "steadfast love and mercy"
  5. being satisfied with "good" - specifically good health

God forgives all your iniquity

So, "forgiveness" seems pretty self-explanatory (we'll get back to it in a minute), but I'm not sure everyone knows what "iniquity" is. You may think, as I did and I'm sure most people do, that "iniquity" is just a longer word that means "sin", but it's not, not exactly. "Sin" is when you mess up and do something wrong -  you were presented with a situation and you made the wrong choice. "Iniquity", however, is the thing inside of you that caused you to make that choice. The Bible talks about the "flesh" meaning that before we gave our hearts to Jesus, we were messed up and couldn't get to God, and sometimes we still act like that. Think of the sin as the action itself, and the iniquity is the thing that clicked inside and caused the action to be taken. Notice it doesn't say "iniquities" like there are multiple things–it's one "iniquity" that causes the whole problem.

Let's go back to "forgiveness" now. Let's say my wife didn't know it was my special cookie sitting on the counter, and she wanted a cookie so in all innocence she ate it. I found out and got mad, but then I realized it was a mistake and I said, "I forgive you."

That's NOT what this forgiveness is.

This "forgiveness" is more along the lines of pardon for a crime. In fact, in a lot of verses the same word is translated into some variation of the word "pardon". So let's put that together. God doesn't just say "I forgive you" when we sin. God's first benefit is that He has granted us a full pardon for the actual sinful nature which we were born with and to which we sometimes still succumb. He has pardoned all of it! Keep the dental plan, I'll take that benefit, please!

On to Benefit #2!

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Spiritual Worship

Stepping back a bit from my previous post about Romans 12, I think it's interesting to get some context from the whole chapter.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1–2 (ESV)

What I see here is that Paul is going to give us some instructions on how to live a life fully committed to God, not only in spiritual things but also in the physical realm (so, not just thinking nice thoughts, but actually taking action). He prepares us for a mental paradigm shift, then he goes on in the next few verses to explain that in the body of Christ (meaning, all who has put our faith in Him, not the head and torso and arms and legs and hands and feet he had when he walked on the Earth) has lots of members with different functions to perform, different jobs to hold, and all of them are important.

Then we get to that passage I mentioned last time starting in verse 9. There are 13 verses from there to the end of the chapter, and I noticed something interesting. Out of the 13 verses, I only see two verses that are about doing something solitary. "Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord." (verse 11) "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer." (verse 12). The rest of the verses are all about how we treat other people! We love them (9-10), we take care of their needs (13), we bless them, even the mean ones (14), we empathize with them (15), we are friendly even to the ones that are different from us personally (16, 18), and we choose to treat them well even if they treat us badly (17, 19-21). All that stuff in verses 6-8 - prophecy, teaching, exhorting (persuading people), giving lots of money, leadership, all of the things we tend to think are cool important things that we want to do - all of that stuff winds up being secondary to just being able to treat people like Christ treated them.

To come back full circle - this chapter started off telling us how to worship God with our whole selves, even our bodies. We each have gifts and callings, but in the end, it is doing physical acts of service for others that somehow turns around and becomes a spiritual act of worship to God!

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

How to Be a Christian

I've been thinking lately about Romans 12:9-21. I actually took a picture with my phone of the passage, and I keep looking at it and thinking about it. Basically, it's a description of how to really live out your faith as a Christian. Every day I take a look at it and take stock of how I'm doing, sort of like a checklist before launching a rocket ship. Here are things I've been thinking about in some of the verses:

Verse 9 "Let love be genuine." If you know about Greek words for "love" - this word is "agape" which means the kind of love that comes directly from God. It doesn't say that we should force ourselves to love - it says we should let the genuine love flow from God through us. I think in the Christian life sometimes we think we have to make something happen, when in reality if we sort of let go of the reins, God will make it happen (see 1 Thessalonians 3:12). Let God's love happen in you!

Verse 10 "Love one another with brotherly affection." This is not "agape" love. This is human affection. Basically this verse is talking about loving other believers in Jesus like family, like brothers and sisters. People don't always get along with their brothers and sisters very well, but in a loving family, they'll stand up for each other when the chips are down. I'm so glad I go to a church where people do care about each other! At your church, when the service is over, do people immediately leave and go to lunch? Not at my church. At my church, people are still there chatting and enjoying each other's company well after the service is concluded. Some of my favorite people are there - I want to talk to all of them! No church is perfect, but I think that's what this Scripture is saying.

Verse 11 "Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord" We have a vibrant volunteer culture at our church. I'm not sure how visible it is to members who aren't involved, but I'm on two different teams - worship arts and children's ministry - and in both of those contexts people are fired up about what we're doing for the Lord. I don't hear people talking like they are doing it because they feel obligated or because they want to be special (and that can be a real problem on worship teams!) - people genuinely see that God is doing something and we just want to be part of it.

Verse 15 "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." This past year my wife went through a serious health problem (maybe I'll talk about it in a future post), and it was really hard, but as soon as our brothers and sisters in Christ found out about it, they went out of their way to help us out. They prayed for us, brought us food when we were going through a rough patch, and when my wife wasn't able to come to church with me because of her treatments, everyone asked how she was doing. Do you know what effect it had on me? It made me want to be that person for someone else one day. I guess that's that whole "iron sharpens iron" thing, huh?

Verse 21: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Do you notice what that does not say? It doesn't say "Be careful because evil can totally beat you up, so try to run away if you can!" It completely puts you and me in the driver's seat. If evil happens to us, it's because we let it overcome us. Instead we need to overcome it! It wants to beat us, but it can't unless we let it! That doesn't mean that evil won't come - ref: my wife's health problems last year. But when evil comes and tries to overcome you, the correct response is to apply good to the situation and overcome it instead!

How's THAT for a lot to chew on?

Monday, February 5, 2024

Getting Going

Blogging is hard. Writing is hard. It's not hard to do once, but it's hard to do often, consistently, and meaningfully. It's not hard to have a thought, and it's not even hard to have a thought that might interest someone, but it's hard to find time to sit down and write a blog post. And that's just by default.

Add to that the fact that over the past couple of years, it's also become a little more difficult to find the courage to blog. Especially about something that can be divisive, like thoughts about what the Bible says about God. Political extremists have co-opted the word "hate" to mean "when someone's opinions differ from mine," and it can be awfully tough to not say anything that someone disagrees with. Even when a guy isn't trying to be political, he can wind up on someone's "you hate me" list. I don't want to be on that list in anybody's book!

But you know what? I think from time to time God might be speaking to me about things that could be useful to others. Worst case, I read my Bible and do a little research and come up with something that is interesting, at least to me. So over the past couple of years the blog posts have been pretty light, but it's time to get back on the horse and start blogging again. There's a time when the going gets tough, and when that happens, you know what has to happen. Time to get tough! Time to get going!

Keep your eyes peeled this year. I have a lot of cool stuff to talk about!

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Epiphany 2024, part 2

Most years I start with my youngest and work my way up through her big brother and finally to my wife. This year I decided to reverse that and start with my wife and work my way backward. Her gift and word were a little heavy, and I didn't want to end on that note!

This year I also get some help from a friend and got some cards printed up. Each card has as a background an image I found of The Magi, then printed over that, their name, their "word", and a related Scripture. I'm no graphic designer, but I'm really happy with how they came out! I think I'm going to keep doing it in future years!

This year my wife has been in a battle with breast cancer. At the stage we caught it, it is a winnable fight, and we're in a good place now, but the treatments are no fun. They are time-consuming, and uncomfortable to the point of sometimes being painful. She had a surgery which left her flat on her back on the couch for several weeks, doctor's orders not to move unless she absolutely had to. Her word was "Second Chance". I reminded her that if we hadn't gotten treatment from some amazing doctors and medical technicians using tools that didn't even exist 5, 10, 15 years ago, she would be dead right now. I told her to consider this her reset button. This is the "turn it off and back on again" reboot. This is her video game "extra life". Now is her chance to do things she never did before, because "before" is over with and "second chance" is now. The gift I gave her was a beautiful pewter "ticket" like you see in the picture (it's actually a photo of two of them so you can see the front and the back) by an Etsy artist named Cynthia Webb. I left a message with my order telling her that this was for a gift and I was hoping the USPS would be quick about it, and in the package she included a sweet reply telling me she hoped it made it on time! (It did!) Click on the picture and take a look at her work! It's pretty fantastic stuff!

The Scripture I included for my wife is from Psalm 40:1-3 (I had to leave out part of it to fit it on the card, but the missing part applies too): “I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry... He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the LORD.”

By the way... my daughter protested " 'Second Chance' is two words!" Of course it is, but a "word" can also mean more than one word. "I will take care of this problem, you have my word" - "I'm angry with that guy, I'm going to have a word with him!" ...or how about this one: we call the Bible the "Word of God". The sense I'm using it in, though, is in the "word of prophecy" sense. I do not have the ministry of a prophet of God, but I believe that as the father I have a similar ministry to my own family. So that's why I use the word "word" even when it's multiple words.

My son spent the last part of this year working at a pretty great job he got in order to pay off some school bills and get back on track for college. The word I had for him was "Focus". I wanted him to remember that even though he had a pretty decent job that he's working at right now, his college is to prep him for something even more amazing to come later! I actually gave him two Scriptures, Proverbs 16:9 and Hebrews 12:1-2: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” and “Let us strip off every weight that slows us down... and let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.” I gave him the cool nautical-style telescope at left (it's mostly for show and not as much to use, although it does actually work). The inscription on the telescope says “Go Confidently in the Direction of Your Dreams/Live the Life You Have Imagined.” I told him not to ignore the people God puts right next to him in this season, but also do not lose sight on the longer-term vision for his future.

Things were a little different for my daughter. For my wife and my son, the "word" almost felt obvious. For my daughter, it took a little more prayer this year. As a dad it would be easy enough to just make up something, but I deeply feel that it is important that whatever I give and say to them for Epiphany every year is inspired by God for that year. Finally something dropped into my heart for her: "Friends". Honestly, I don't even know exactly what that means to her, but I told her that what I felt in my heart was that she seems to have an easy time at making friends - people at school seem to know who she is and think favorably about her. Maybe there are kids who don't like her, but so far I haven't met anyone who seems to be uncomfortable talking to me, like a teenager is when they have to talk to the dad of someone they don't care for. I told her that I think she needs to not be apprehensive about making friends with people. Open up and be a friend when someone needs a friend. I gave her John 15:12-13: “This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I don't think, though, that the application of that Scripture ends with literally giving up your life for someone, as in getting hit by a train while you're pushing someone else off the tracks. I think that "laying down your life for your friends" might mean just laying down your cell phone when someone needs to talk, or laying down a book you're enjoying to enjoy the human being right next to you. When she was opening up the twin necklaces you see above, I made sure she understood that I wasn't trying to call her names - I just knew that she would think it was hilarious (she did). I told her she was welcome to keep both necklaces if she wanted to, but I was hoping she would actually give one of them to a friend!

I hope reading this has inspired you to do something like this for your own family. You don't have to be the dad... you can be the mom, or a grandparent, or you can even be a brother or sister and seek the Lord for a word for someone. You might just be a friend, and the Holy Spirit might inspire you to share with someone. A small gift, a physical object, can hold meaning in the way that just words might not... it's why prophets in the Old Testament (and even the New Testament) used physical objects to communicate a message. It's also why we send greeting cards at Christmas and birthdays, and why we give flowers and candy on Valentine's Day. I always try to link to the things I pick out in case you want to share them as well, but please, her from the Lord on your own! The word He gives you is the Word that is needed by exactly that person at exactly that moment!

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Epiphany 2024, part 1

Something felt special about our Epiphany celebration this year. I felt like God was giving me something extra special to share with my family, and I was actually pretty excited about it!

I don't remember if I've mentioned this before, but typically I'll briefly share something with them from the Word that has to do with the Christmas season. This year I had been thinking about sheep. It turns out there are a lot of stories about the Christmas sheep - that the shepherds were special sacrificial sheep shepherds, that they actually would swaddle the baby sheep and put them in mangers to keep them spotless at birth, that the place where Mary and Joseph and Jesus were was the place where the sacrificial sheep were born, that sort of stuff. It's pretty fascinating, and it turns out that most of it is fictional with no credible evidence, Biblical or historical, to back it up. There is nothing significant that we know about the shepherds other than that they were shepherds - guys with jobs, maybe families, just regular Joes.

There is also little or no evidence for another thing I've heard - that shepherds were some kind of reviled lower class. King David was a shepherd, which would likely have elevated the profession already, and Jesus had no problem calling Himself a "good shepherd" - which, if there were negative connotations to the profession, would have changed the whole spin of that declaration.

But isn't it interesting that Jesus saw the people, who were being led poorly by the religious establishment, as "sheep without a shepherd", and extending the metaphor of the people as sheep and the leaders as shepherds, He called Himself "the good shepherd". Which sounds pretty pastoral to us, but keep in mind that for the very best of the actual sheep in that culture, being the best was essentially a death sentence! The spotless and perfect of sheep were to be sacrificed.

The crazy amazing thing is that the "good shepherd" in this case loved the sheep, but He did not halt the sacrifices. Instead, he became a sheep, and allowed Himself to be sacrificed instead! The "Lamb of God" was given up for us, took away our sins, and freed us from the sentence of death. What a plot twist!

Well, I was going to tell you all about the gifts I gave the family this year, but this post is already long enough. Stay tuned for part 2!